What exactly is Vijay Iyer encouraging to be broken with his latest trio LP, Break Stuff? Does he seek a break with aspects of modern jazz tradition; with listener expectations for a “standard” jazz piano trio; or with the rigid constrictions of a pianist’s artistic vision? It’s no small task, but on Break Stuff the Vijay Iyer Trio seeks to do all of the above. Like his idol Thelonious Monk, Mr. Iyer pushes for a redefining of expectations of jazz piano music. In his case, Mr. Iyer is pushing the boundaries and traditional structures for the piano trio vision and canon. His focus on innovation is limited and the record suffers from some tunnel vision.
Vijay Iyer, along with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore behind the kit, breaks the piano trio out of the Bill Evans model of composition and arrangement. While most trios following Mr. Evans inherit his artistic sensibilities—namely the creation of textures and moods through complex harmonic and melodic motion—Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore instead channel their collective energy through rhythmic play and the building of grooves. In a web video for ECM Records, Iyer discusses how “Break Stuff” refers to the “stuff that happens in the [rhythmic] breaks.” To draw an analogy, as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man found the meaning of jazz music in the hidden spaces between Satchmo’s notes, Iyer finds the meaning of jazz in the hidden spaces between rhythms and in the breaks between rhythms.
The rhythms that the trio builds throughout the first half of Break Stuff, the more musically complicated and challenging side, put most funk groups to shame. Part of this wild jungle of rhythms comes from Gilmore’s precise, mellifluous drumming. As best exemplified on “Chorale,” the speed of his fills—the breaks, if you will—weave and snake between Iyer’s flurrying notes in a mesmerizing display of the combo’s unity. Numbers like “Chorale” and “Diptych” also demonstrate the Iyer Trio’s new, inverted arrangements and structures. While the standard composition follows moments of unity—i.e. the head—with
instrumental flights, the trio inverts this such that the emphasis falls on when the group fires on all cylinders together. This exploration of rhythms comes to its most experimental and poignant on “Hood,” where the trio reconnects their music to the modernist sounds that informed the World War era jazz musicians. Through supreme manipulation and understanding of timbre, Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore unfold a bleak, mechanical landscape from the piano, bass, and drums: a fitting commentary on the even further mechanization and impersonality of modern life.
These numbers also suffer from a tunnel vision effect: the Trio is so focused on these repeating riffs and grooves that they forget to vary timbre and mode. Drawing on his influences from Monk, most of the shades of color that Iyer paints with tend towards the dark side. Monk knew that he had to balance the crushed notes, shadowy timbres and ragged harmonies with different textures, a lesson that Mr. Iyer does not pick up on initially. The album as a whole balances out on its second half, but the initial offerings are weighed down and often lost in their own diminished, rhythmic maelstrom.
After their sojourns through the stormy musical and rhythmic seas, the trio finally make good on their song titles (“Starlings,” “Taking Flight,” “Geese,” and “Wrens”) and spread their wings for Break Stuff’s second half. And what a journey it is. While the material shies more towards standard trio arrangements and structures, it is still high-caliber artistry. Where the trio still inverts standard practice is on the near-atonal “Geese” where Crump leads the trio through extended, bowed melodies while Iyer inputs Tristano minimalism. Elsewhere, Iyer leads the trio through a near-unrecognizable version of Coltrane’s “Countdown” that emphasizes both defining aspects of the piece’s original structure: the incredible virtuosity of Coltrane’s sheets of sound—sounding even more sheet-like on the ivory keys—and release of tension from the relieving cadences. The Trio ultimately strikes a perfect balance on the LP’s title track. The three musicians combine the rhythmic dynamism of the album’s first half with the flighty, bright melodies of the second, creating the kind of number that should have appeared more on the record.
While Iyer’s original compositions here are certainly worthy of praise, the purest moment of artistic genius and splendor comes on his solo rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” In what might turn out to be the most appropriate and elegant celebration of Stray’s centennial, Iyer gives his swan song the delicate, personal touch it deserves. The Ellington arrangement on …And His Mother Called Him Bill is a fitting tribute to their relationship, but Iyer reclaims the song for Strayhorn’s own artistry and genius. Like the most powerful of Chopin preludes, Iyer carefully considers the emphasis and phrasing of every melody, every measure and every note of Stray’s epitaph. “Blood Count” as performed by Vijay Iyer then becomes both a tribute to Billy Strayhorn of the utmost beauty and artistic genius but also a chance for Strayhorn’s own, unaltered voice to resurface in the modern jazz dialogue. Through this version of “Lush Life,” Iyer gives a melancholic, stunning tribute to one of America’s greatest composers.
Break Stuff is by no means easy to break into. But the Vijay Iyer Trio is to be lauded for doing what so few seem to do in jazz these days: push the boundaries. The Vijay Iyer trio makes significant foray into redefining the role and potential of the jazz piano trio on Break Stuff. The rewards for sticking with the record should be enough for any serious jazz fan.
- Originally published as part of my Sunday Jazz column for WGTB - Georgetown Radio